South Wishaw Charrette

I was pleased to see  that the Scottish Government’s (SG) ‘Strategy For Architecture and Place’ published earlier this week highlights the aim to strengthen and promote community participation in design and planning  through charrettes and other participatory design methods.  It struck me that ‘charrettte’ is now buzzword in the Scottish planning and design vocabulary.  Is it time to demythologise and see what’s inside the ‘black box’?

Origins of Charrette

The term is thought to originate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century; the word charrette is French for ‘cart’. Then it was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their work for review, while they worked to apply the finishing touches, the students were said to be working en charrette, in the cart! We could speculate on the modern equivalent?

So a ‘charrette’ is an interactive and intensive multi-disciplinary event that engages local people with specialists to develop designs for their community. It is a hands-on approach where ideas are translated into plans and drawings. The purpose of a charrette remains the same as that of its 1940’s roots, apparently when a firm of architects in Texas first thought up the idea of ‘squatting’: taking the process of putting together a masterplan into the community it affects. This was their solution to improve communication issues with their clients, stakeholders, and the community and to overcome wasting time, money, energy and creative ideas in travel to attend several discussions over a longer period. Their idea still holds true and is, if anything, even more pertinent in today’s environment of spending cuts and value for money.

Charrettes In Scotland

It’s worth summarising the recent history of the charrette in Scotland.  As part of the Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiative (SSCI), an initial Charrette Series was held in March 2010. Florida based, Andres Duany, Duany Plater-Zyberk, who were well known for advocating the charrette approach, were commissioned by SG to deliver week-long charrettes in  Ladyfield, Dumfries; Lochgelly, Fife; and Grandhome, Aberdeen.  At the same time a charrette approach was used in preparing masterplans for new settlements at Tornagrain, near Inverness by Moray Estates and for Chapleton of Elsick, south of Aberdeen by Elsick Development Company.

Building on the success of the SSCI Charrette Series, SG launched a new charrette programme in 2011-12 aimed at mainstreaming this approach to development within Scottish design and planning practice. Three projects were promoted namely:

The Mainstreaming programme was extended for a second year and charrette projects supporting the production of Local Development Plans took place in early 2013 were:

  • Wick and Thurso: with the Highland Council to support and inform the Caithness and Sutherland Local Development Plan.
  • Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park: with the National Park Authority, to support and inform the National Park Local Development Plan and focussing on the communities of Aberfoyle; Tyndrum; Drymen & Balmaha; and Arrochar, Succoth and Tarbert.
  • South Wishaw:  with North Lanarkshire Council to inform the North Lanarkshire Local Development Plan focussing on devising a methodology to identify genuinely effective housing sites.

There have been other charrettes organised by Highland, Fife and Dumfries and Galloway  Councils

 Observations Three Years On

Having used charrette type engagement processes since the 1990’s and with recent direct experience jointly facilitating the Johnstone South West and South Wishaw charrettes, I’d offer the following observations:

  • The charrette approach should be set in the context of widening social engagement in governance at different levels but there is a need to distinguish consultation against genuine shared decision making for example involving negotiation.
  • Independent organisation and facilitation of the charrette is crucial to establishing credibility and the choice of venue is crucial.
  • The charrette provides an ideal forum for council departments, councillors, statutory agencies, stakeholders including land owners developers and residents/businesses to talk to each other.
  • The process can challenge preconceptions and fixed ideas as part of exploring the spatial implications of different thematic land use issues and pace making policies.
  • The charrette can really progress discussions and move to a consensus on a way forward.
  • Wider ownership of solutions can emerge and in some cases typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers can be defused.
  • A charrette is a relatively quick way of generating a design solution using the skills, aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people, although it is important to manage expectations.

While the structure of a charrette varies and depends on the place making issues and the individuals that are being targeted there has to be clarity from the outset as to the scale and target audience.  It might be helpful to refer to charrrette types: mini/light (1/2 days) medium 3/4 days and full blown (5+ days). 

Obviously the costs in terms of the team facilitating and the specialist skills required (e.g. urban design, regeneration, property market, transport, ground conditions, hydrology etc.) at the charrette and the individuals attending will increase with the scale of the event. Think car, model, specification and resulting price point!

Clearly engagement and empowerment is crucial to achieving relevant and high quality outcomes as part of place-making.  The charrette process can play a crucial role but there is a need to be more precise about the scale, nature and target audience and therefore what’s in the ‘black box’.

Doug Wheeler, June 2013    

5 Responses to Time To Demythologise The Charrette?

  1. Bob Reid says:

    A good summary – BUT – The question you have avoided is whether charettes are appropriate on ‘un-allocated’ sites?

    When Poundbury and Upton charrettes took place – both sites were allocated in their respective development plans. The decision about what the land was for had been taken. The charrettes were able then to focus on how to make great places.

    If charettes are organised on unallocated land – it becomes a ‘marketing and lobbying’ exercise. It has the potential to distort sensible planning e.g. allowing sites very poorly related to existing infrastructure simply because a charrette process has ‘wowed’ folk. Planning Authorities should be able to do development plans and allocate sites on the clear expectation that ALL development must be well designed. The government should be clear on this. To relax back into a stance of “if it overcomes NIMBY attitudes and helps get housing land allocated….” is simply not good enough in town & country planning terms.

    • doug-wheeler says:

      Thanks for the comments.
      I take your point on ‘non allocated’ sites.
      You might want to check out how our mini charrette in South Wishaw informed the North Lanarkshire Council NLDP Call for Sites The submission form for those making submissions must demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of their site and include necessary information for an assessment of the site to be made. Therefore moving the burden of justifying the inclusion. Maybe an early example of mainstreaming from the SG SSCI Charrette Mainstreaming Programme?
      What do you think?
      24 July

  2. Pete Duncan says:

    In my current experience, the charrette system is innately rushed. It gives affected residents, who have busy lives of their own, an indecently short time in which to get to grips with with what they’re being faced with and then respond to it. When, in addition, the system is used by a government that’s distanced itself from ordinary people by three levels of bureaucracy, and by an aristocratic absentee landlord who’s determined to increase his already-vast fortune by seriously, detrimentally and without though or care for the lives he’s damaging, then the charrette system denies people their fundamental democratic rights in the Planning Process and becomes, instead, a bullying tactic. Developers are required to publicly advertise their intentions, but they ensure that as few people as possible get to know about them through clever and deliberate timing and choice of media – they place the smallest ads possible, printed in the smallest possible font in the least-read local papers at a time when people’s attention is distracted by holiday plans or kids’ exam times and so on. That, however, satisfies the legal requirement placed on them for that element.

    Our local aristocratic absentee landlord is jumping an a particular bandwagon – that of delivering “sustainable housing and communities”, to use the latest meaningless buzzwords – and his family owns land around our village which is a soft target for development, as it’s on the A1 corridor to Edinburgh. It’s transparently obvious that he’s out to make money for himself and he’s on public record as saying that he will not tolerate interference with his plans by local residents. His plan, which he’s railroaded through in a a very short time, is impractical, divisive, unwanted and unnecessary, and it’s not NIMBYism that’s driving local objections.

    Our aristo formed a risibly inappropriately- and ridiculously-named development company called Socially Conscious Capital to maximise the returns of his family’s considerable lands, and for his project for our village, he’s retained at least 3 other organisations to provide him with a sort of human shield. He now hides behind Rydens, one of the country’s largest building firms; The Prince’s Foundation for Community Building, who are largely fronting SCC’s proposal and Orbit Communications, through whom he’s now issuing mendaciously-massaged statistics and other reports on his consultations with local residents and other related matters.

    We’ve read of other developments where the charette system of “Enquiry by Design” (more like Bullying by Design) has been used, and affected local residents have been left feeling very angry indeed and completely disenfranchised from their democratic rights.

    The man behind the formulation of the current charrette system, Andres Duany, is, in my opinion at least, an evangelistic, self-serving American architect whose methods and attitudes stick in the gullets of people here in Britain. Our homes and our home environment are not and must not be business opportunities for the money-grabbing, greedy, uncaring, thoughtless rogues who have been permitted to flourish.

    Our communities are not to be measured in terms of how much money they can generate for local councils and national government – there are other places for that called Business Parks and Industrial Estates. Communities are for people to live in away from all that, with local shops to conveniently provide the necessities the people want. How the people in those communities live, should be up to them, without strangers with their own visions and agendas coming in and meddling. If the community wants or needs outside help, they can ask for it and it should be there to respond, but not to interfere pro-actively

    • doug-wheeler says:


      Thanks for your comments. I don’t know the specifics of the charrette that you’ve been involved and I’ll be brief in my response to your main points.

      Charrettes are innately rushed: I take your point; on the one hand a short sharp programme can provide a focus, build energy and some momentum. Difficult policy, local economy, environmental and infrastructural issues and challenges however should not be set aside so as to focus only on design questions. The charrette might be one part of a longer planning process see below.

      Charrettes & the Planning Process: As I’ve said in the original blog, charrettes need to be seen in the on text of widening social engagement in governance at different levels. I agree that there is a real need to distinguish consultation against genuine shared decision making for example involving negotiation. This distinction needs to be highlighted at the beginning in the ‘rules of engagement’ for the charrette. In any particular location, the outcome of the charrette would not affect the usual statutory planning process/development management and the formal consultation that is involved at that stage.

      Charrettes on ‘un-allocated’ sites: You’ll have seen the comments on this particular issue and there is a danger if this happens of the charrette can become a ‘marketing and lobbying’ exercise.

      You might be aware that for this the third year of the charrette mainstreaming programme, the Scottish Government is providing grant funding for eleven charrette projects see:

      It would be interesting to review the community experiences over the three years of the mainstreaming programme.

      Doug Wheeler
      May 2014

  3. […] in Scotland. More on the seasonal nature of things later. It’s now two and half years since my last blog on charrettes and the Scottish Government’s (SG) Mainstreaming Programme is now in its fifth year. The scheme […]

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